Back in the mid-’70s, when my oldest son was entering his teenage years and expressing, like many of his friends, an admiration for the Marine Corps, his mother and I attended a formal party that included an early morning breakfast.
Seated next to my wife was the distinguished Marine Corps Commandant and Medal of Honor winner Louis H. Wilson Jr. In the midst of a conversation about Scot’s interest in the Marines, my wife turned to Wilson and politely but firmly asked whether it was Marines policy to encourage the kind of training that had infamously resulted in a young recruit’s death. The training had involved pugil sticks, poles padded at both ends that were used to school recruits in balance and hand-to-hand combat skills.
The young man’s death had stirred the ire of millions of Americans because he was a mentally challenged and had been literally wacked time and again by his fellow trainees in an attempt to impress their drill instructor, who stood by watching.
I cringed at hearing the question in a social setting, but Wilson didn’t flinch or seem to take exception.
“Certainly not,” he said, “but it’s a fair question. Nothing like this ever should have occurred and it is my mission that it never does again. The young man should never have been accepted for the Corps in the first place. More importantly, those supervising his training from the top to the bottom were negligent in their duty, and the brutality of the exercise has no place in preparing these youngsters for combat. We mean to train an elite fighting force but not at the expense of common sense and good judgment.”
Wilson was as good as his word. The Marine Corps banned pugil stick exercises and reformed its recruiting process. It also held those in charge of training to a higher standard.
Of course, that wasn’t the first time the Corps had faced public scrutiny.
Twenty years earlier at the Parris Island military installation in South Carolina, a drunken staff sergeant, Matthew McKeon, had led recruits on a late night march into Ribbon Creek, where six drowned. The incident produced one of the most sensational court martials in military history as the country fumed in outrage. McKeon got off rather lightly after testimony on his behalf by the likes of Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated Marine in the Corps’ annals, and the eloquence of his noted civilian defense attorney, Emile Zola Berman.
All this has become relevant again, of course, because Marine training is once more under critical scrutiny after the death of a young recruit and the seemingly over-the-top mistreatment of several others by at least one drill instructor at Parris Island. Both heads of overall training at the famous South Carolina base have been suspended from their duties as the investigation continues.
The hazing by the enlisted drill instructor reportedly centered around Muslim recruits, who were placed in industrial clothes dryers after gratuitously being accused of harboring terrorist sympathies. One trainee suffered burns on his neck and an arm. The recruit who died allegedly jumped into a 38-foot stairwell after being slapped by his drill instructor. The Marines called it a suicide, but the recruit’s family has disputed that interpretation.
Since the days when the Corps prided itself on having the toughest boot camp training and looked the other way in instances of overzealousness by hard-nosed instructors, strict rules forbidding abuse of recruits, including hands-on discipline, have been in place — on paper, at least. Details of the current investigation suggest a different reality.
Marines are an elite force, not simply elite troops within a larger body like the Army Rangers or Delta Force or Navy Seals. Their history is resplendent with achievement, and those who have been a part of that never forget it. The group’s motto, “semper fidelis,” meaning “always faithful,” becomes part of a Marine’s living code, no matter what else he does. Obviously, Marines training must be special and difficult, and there are bound to be times when things get out of hand.
When that occurs, though, those in charge must reinforce to civilians and active duty Marines alike that there is zero tolerance for that kind of behavior, just as Gen. Wilson did to my son’s mother so long ago. She went away feeling much better about an institution that has such an important place in preserving our democracy.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.